On 24 October 2019, The Rt Hon David Miliband delivered the 2nd annual Sir Martin Gilbert Memorial Lecture. The transcript of his speech is below.

“BREXIT AND THE ANTI-LIBERAL MOMENT”

“These are, by any standards, extraordinary times in the UK. There are few cool heads. So we especially miss Sir Martin Gilbert, and I am especially honoured to have been asked by Esther and the Committee of the wonderful Martin Gilbert Centre to give this lecture tonight.

Martin was an extraordinary Briton. A brilliant scholar with an open mind, a historian who thought about the future as well as the past, a writer who dealt in complexity but made things clear, a patriot who was also an internationalist.

Martin only seemed to produce definitive histories. The Second World War and Churchill. Judaism and Israel. Esther sent me short essay by Martin on leadership – she thought I could use some lessons – and it has gems of insight and humanity.

The closest contact I had with Martin was during my time as Foreign Secretary.  I had made the decision, at the instigation of Sir Sigmund Sternberg, to commemorate the work of Robert Smallbones and other Foreign Office officials who in the late 1930s and early 1940s went way beyond the bounds of government policy to deliver visas for Jews seeking to flee Germany and other parts of occupied Europe.  The Foreign Office had been dilatory in recognising this brave work.  And the act of committing to establish the plaque, which remains in the Old India Office today, brought forth a bundle of previously unknown humanitarian deeds.

Of course, I asked Martin for some help with my remarks at the unveiling. But he went further than that. He documented the deeds in a wonderful, short publication, entitled “Beyond the Call of Duty: British Diplomats and other Britons who helped Jews Escape from Nazi Tyranny”.

The pamphlet ends with a simple lesson: never underestimate the potential for ordinary people to play their part in defeating evil.

In this and other chronicles of the Second World War Martin Gilbert explained how government of the people, for the people, by the people was saved for future generations. Not just democracy in the form of majority rule, but the central tenets of liberal democracy.

This is my focus tonight. The precious nature of the liberal democratic idea. The wrecking ball of Brexit on our democratic norms and institutions. The “near miss event” of the attempted prorogation of Parliament. And the need for serious renewal of our democracy to defend our democracy: not just the place of referendums, but the use of deliberative forums like citizen’s assemblies, a written constitution to keep the Monarch out of politics, and protection against the virus of fake news.

 

My starting point could not be more basic.

The liberal idea, with a small l, is that all human beings have rights, by virtue of their humanity, that need to be protected; that there must be defences against the abuse of power because power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; that with rights come responsibilities, that need to be exercised in ways large and small, to sustain a functioning society; and that while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, they are not entitled to their own facts, so political debate and decision-making should proceed in a deliberative form from those facts.

This idea has been one of the great liberators of the human story. Alongside its sibling social democracy, liberal democracy has done more to unleash peaceful human progress than any other idea in history. It has freed slaves, emancipated nations, defeated tyrannies, built civilisations.

The free and equal ballot, the rule of law, individual rights, are the practical implementation of this idea. They are liberal means, distinct from the goals or ideals that are sometimes called “liberal”, like social and economic equality between men and women.

It is liberal means that I am concerned with tonight. And my lecture begins with the chilling fact that these means, the norms and laws of liberal democracy around the world, are under greater challenge than at any time since the Second World War.

 

The Challenge to Liberal Democracy

A series of book titles tell their own story. “How Democracies Die”. “How Democracy Ends”. “On Tyranny”. “The Retreat of Western Liberalism”. “Crises of Democracy”. “Democracy versus the People”.

Professor Yascha Mounck of Johns Hopkins University, author of that latter book, points out in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that for the first time since the late nineteenth century the cumulative GDP of autocracies now equals or exceeds that of western liberal democracies. He adds: “It has been a terrible decade for democracy. According to Freedom House, the world is now in its 13th consecutive year of global democratic recession. Democracies have collapsed or eroded in every region, from Burundi to Hungary, Thailand to Venezuela. Most troubling of all, democratic institutions have proved to be surprisingly brittle in countries where they once seemed stable and secure.”

The autocrats are increasingly confident. In an interview in the Financial Times in June President Putin of Russia baldly stated: “the liberal idea is obsolete…it has outlived its purpose”. And he declared that he sees a kindred spirit in a man he calls “Donald”.

America is central to the story, because it is the global trend setter not just the international weathervane.

The trend I see there is simple but dangerous: the philosophy that the ends justify the means, that breaking the rules is acceptable in the name of your mandate, that norms of checks and balances are not worth defending, that the law is for suckers. Daily there is evidence of norm-breaking on a jaw-dropping scale.

All of this is driven forward by the politics of character assassination in what John Harris recently called the “moronic inferno” of Twitter. This brilliant phrase is, appropriately enough, the title of a book of essays by Martin Amis entitled The Moronic Inferno and other Visits to America.

In total 113 countries have seen a reduction in democratic freedoms since 2006. That means press freedom curtailed, judicial independence curbed, election integrity undermined, freedom of speech reduced.

The authors of How Democracies Die, two Harvard University academics Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, argue that two unwritten rules sustain democracy. The first is mutual toleration, according to which politicians accept their opponents as loyal citizens and legitimate representatives of views with which they happen to disagree. You cannot have civility if you consider your opponents, not just misguided but dangerous and illegitimate.

The second norm is forbearance, or self-restraint in the exercise of power. Because you accept that the other side will one day be in power, and fear what they would do with untrammelled power, you limit your own use of power.

Levitsky and Ziblatt describe the opposite of forbearance as exploiting the letter of the law to undermine its spirit. Mark Tushnet of Harvard calls this “constitutional hardball”.

Which inevitably brings the issue home to the trauma of Brexit.

“Constitutional hardball” has been the hallmark of the last two governments in the UK, notably in trying to keep Parliament out of the Brexit negotiations. And this makes Brexit the anvil for the British version of the challenge to liberal democratic norms and institutions.

 

Brexit is Symptom and Driver of Democracy under Siege

The UK scored 93 out of 100 in the last annual assessment of political freedom conducted by Freedom House. But the norms, institutions, parties, practices and trust our democracy lives by are clearly being challenged by the wrecking ball of the Brexit crisis.

Professor Sir Richard Evans was not only Martin Gilbert’s last undergraduate pupil before Martin set out to be the official Churchill biographer. He was also a speaker at Martin’s memorial service in 2015. And he is of course of one of contemporary Britain’s most eminent historians.

So, when writes an article for Prospect entitled “Britain’s Reichstag Fire Moment” one has to pause.

The danger is to be alarmist. But there is a danger too in ignoring the alarms.

Professor Evans says that we are not reliving the 1930s. But he also says that “the ground rules of democratic politics in many countries, including Britain and the US, are more in danger than they have been at any time since the early 1930s”.

Brexit has not just come to symbolise the shifting ground rules of which Professor Evans writes. It has also shifted those rules. It is cause as well as symptom when it comes to new challenge to the sovereignty of parliament, the nature of political debate, the role of the courts, the unity of the parties, the rule of law and even the role of the Monarch.

Let me make a personal detour. I freely admit I am not a dispassionate bystander in this debate. I confess that the Brexit crisis has been something akin to a journey through the seven stages of hell.

Stage 1. Worry. I spoke in the referendum campaign, including at an ill-fated event with David Cameron when he had to explain away a media briefing about Brexit and World War 3. By the time I campaigned in Birmingham in June 2016 I had that deep worry that comes when you feel a campaign lacks energy, values, momentum.

Stage 2. Distress. The referendum result and its aftermath. I honestly felt like I had lost a part of me. Not an arm or a leg but something in my bloodstream. European Union membership had helped make the Britain that I loved so much. The opportunities, the people, the culture, the cooperation, the influence. Now we were going into reverse.

Stage 3. Incredulity. Theresa May’s Conservative Party conference speech in 2016, where she sailed right into the Bermuda Triangle of commitments to leave the Customs Union, leave the Single Market and simultaneously deliver frictionless trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Crazy. Impossible. Destined to lead to disaster.

Stage 4. Foreboding. The triggering of Article 50 in 2017. I had taken Article 50 through the House of Commons as part of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008/9. I remember asking the civil service team about the two-year guillotine on negotiations set in motion by the triggering of Article 50. I said didn’t the time limit hand an enormous advantage to the EU? They said: “Don’t worry. Everyone is clear that no country in its right mind would start the clock until it has sorted out a package to leave.”

Stage 5. Despair. The Labour leadership’s “Jobs First Brexit” in 2018. A vain hope at best and a deception at worst. The only jobs in a Jobs First Brexit are jobs for Holland, Germany and France. And please don’t get me going on “neutrality” between remain and leave.

Stage 6. Embarrassment. Living in New York, the same conversation with every American I meet. First, a shaking of the head, the lament that a country they know as pragmatic and stable is normalising the zealous. Second, the big smile and the repeated phrase: they say “But I do have to say thank you. Thank you – because your country is in even worse trouble than ours.” And I have to interrupt their laughter and say: our situation is not funny.

That leads to stage 7. Frustration. Frustration at the same arguments being recycled again and again. That there are glittering trade deals waiting to be signed with the rest of the world. When there aren’t. That customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland do not represent a border. They do. And most egregiously that anything currently under discussion will get Brexit “done”. It won’t.

As Sir Ivan Rogers has made clear, Brexit is a process not an event. If we leave the EU we will be “doing” Brexit, negotiating the consequences of Brexit, making up for Brexit, filling in the gaps left by Brexit, for at least the duration of the next Parliament and most likely well beyond.

If I am frustrated now, I shudder at what those convinced that Brexit can be “done” this week will come to think when they realise it isn’t.

The truth is that Brexit is going to continue to be our test. Not just economically, and politically, but democratically. And the story of the Brexit crisis – its misbegotten origins, its chaos, its lies, its dangers to the very existence of the United Kingdom – can only have a silver lining if it triggers a series of changes to strengthen our democracy in the face of internal and external threats.

 

Caring for our Democracy

It is not enough to bemoan populism. We who treasure the liberal democratic settlement and the freedoms it ensures need to get our act together. We need to be honest, vigilant, zealous, creative and persuasive.

That honesty starts by acknowledging the strongest point that the Brexiteers now have on their side: that since people voted to leave in June 2016, and Parliament voted to trigger Article 50 in 2017, we need to go ahead with Brexit whatever the economic or political cost, because the danger to democratic health and confidence will be so great if we do not. As the Times put it in a leader column last month: “Failure to do so (to leave) would do more than weaken popular trust in government. It would fatally undermine the social contract on which a parliamentary system depends”.

The Chancellor Sajid Javid has recently argued that he does not need to do an economic impact assessment of the Johnson plan on the grounds that passing it is “good for the fabric of our democracy”.

This argument needs to be joined. I believe the counter argument – that the democratic dangers of Brexit at any cost are in fact greater than the undoubted risks of failing to leave by October 31 – is stronger.

The counter-argument cannot be that the referendum should never have been held. Nor can it be that the result should be be annulled – the so called “Revoke” position. Anti-liberal measures cannot be used to defend liberal institutions. A revocation without a referendum would not be democratic – you can’t just undo the referendum result like that.

The counter argument is that it cannot be more democratic to plough on with a version of Brexit that was never presented to the public in 2016 than to consult them on whether they want to go ahead with this plan.

I would argue the risks to democratic health of doing so are greater than allowing the public to decide. Especially so when the plan does not represent the end of Brexit but in fact is only the beginning. And doubly so when passing it does not even begin to scratch the surface of the democratic renewal that we need, the absence of which has contributed to the toxicity of the Brexit debate in the first place.

The World Health Organisation defines a near-miss event as an error with the potential for patient harm that is intercepted before it is too late. We had a near-miss event in August, with the attempted prorogation of Parliament. In this case the patient was our democratic system. The error was in the use of the Royal prerogative. And it took the intervention of the Supreme Court to enable Parliament to do its job.

We have had our warning. Near-misses represent a teachable moment. The forestalled prorogation of Parliament had been many years in the making, and it will be a ten year process to renew our democratic health, but that is what is needed. My argument is that the whole process of the referendum and its aftermath needs to be the catalyst for far-reaching change to defend the liberal democracy of which we are rightly proud. I don’t pretend to have all the arguments or answers tonight, but I do think it is the central question.

There are three parts to this effort that I want to discuss.

First, we need to recognise what the evidence tells us: significant numbers of voters say they want to blow up the system. And where there are enough voters there will be politicians ready to follow them. Anti-democratic manoeuvering is symptom not just cause.

The prize-winning paper in the psychology section at this year’s American Political Science Association meeting in September delivered an extraordinary statistic: 40 per cent of American voters, the so-called chaos voters, are ready to concur that social and political institutions of the country need to be “torn down”. They are voters who spread false rumours on social media not to support one candidate or another, but to prove that the whole system is rotten.

An analysis of the British electorate, based on analysis of ideology, using older data, found a similar proportion of what it called “anarchist” voters, dating back to the 1980s. The split in the UK is more tilted to the right than the left.

These are voters who avowedly believe “the system” has let them down.

The response can be disagreement, but it cannot be disdain. Levels of inequality, the reality of rent-seeking at the top, the abuse of power by the powerful, the perception of existential cultural change, are real facts that threaten the legitimacy of our system of government.

In the US it has just been revealed that the 400 richest families pay the lowest rate of tax of any group in the population. Who can say that this is not a situation that deserves to incite anger?

The American political scientist Adam Przeworski makes the simple point well: “political equality coexists uneasily with a system of economic inequality”.

So, the defence of our democracy needs to be built on a renewed social and economic contract. It is right that the taxation of wealth is rising up the political agenda. That the abuse of economic power is doing the same. That life chances in towns so-called left behind are the focus of debate.

If the Brexit crisis does not spur serious rethinking then it truly will be a crisis gone to waste. These are not just economic debates; they are integral to the legitimacy and sustainability of our political system.

Second, our representative democracy needs a reboot. There are at least three elements to this.

  • Referendums need a place, but they need to be put in their place. I spent three years as Foreign Secretary arguing against demands for a referendum, quoting Attlee and Thatcher that referendums were refuge of dictators and demagogues. And the cavalier way in which the 2016 referendum was organized – a rush job with no explanation of what Brexit meant, no engagement of citizens before the campaign, no real time rebuke for law-breaking around campaign finance – only compounded the danger.
  • So one silver lining of the Brexit crisis would be to put the role and conduct of referendums on an appropriate footing. The most important would be an absolute requirement that referendums are only held on fully detailed propositions. This was the approach to Scottish devolution and the London mayoralty. By contrast, the asymmetry of the 2016 referendum was that the meaning of Brexit was never defined. That explains a lot of the mess today.
  • Then deliberative democracy needs to be taken seriously. Rory Stewart’s proposals for a Citizen’s Assembly to inform the Brexit process was rubbished in the Conservative leadership contest. But he was only learning from successful experience, notably in Ireland, which invited 100 citizens to Dublin Castle over five weekends to talk through a number of controversial social issues. These Citizen’s Assemblies played a vital role in preparing the public for the debates about abortion and gay rights that could so easily have split the country, but actually ended up strengthening the legitimacy of the result in the eyes of winners and losers.

My former colleague Matthew Taylor, now of the RSA, has made concrete and practical proposals for Citizen’s Assemblies and other forms of engagement to address the problems of “blunt mandate” and “solidarity deficit” associated with our political system. He proposes three national deliberative processes a year, with a requirement for governmental response and parliamentary engagement, and he points out that around the world citizen’s juries and panels are being used at national and local level to counteract the tendency towards fractured, fragmented and fractious debate more akin to kick boxing.

It’s interesting in that context that Stanford Professors James Fishkin and Larry Diamond recently ran an experiment entitled “American in One Room”. 523 Americans, representative of the whole country, young and old, all ethnic groups, rich and poor, spent the weekend together in Dallas talking about toxic political issues: immigration, health care, the economy, environment and foreign policy.

In short, they report a move against polarisation as a result of the conversation. For example the percentage of republicans supporting reducing the number of refugees allowed to resettle in America fell from 66 to 34 per cent. Democrats became more sober about the level of the minimum wage and levels of government spending. International engagement became more popular, with two thirds of Republicans supporting the Iran nuclear agreement after the weekend (up from the mid forties).

I also want to say a word about the party system. An early 20th century class-based party structure is struggling to cope with the 21st century demands of identity politics pressed on it by Brexit.

The party system is based on the idea that broad church parties can represent coalitions of interest. But when the churches become sects, the system breaks down. That danger is now staring us in the face. It is one reason why many people fear the next election.

In the short term there is going to be – and needs to be – tactical voting on a grand scale. Our electoral system has always required voters to balance head and heart in the interests of stable government. But that is not now being delivered. The extremes are being strengthened. Around the world multi-party systems based on more proportional systems than ours are increasingly the norm, reflecting fragmented electorates and building compromise into government by the mechanism of coalition negotiations. Far from being behind closed doors, these are increasingly public. And it would be as well to recognise our diversity of opinion in the electoral system in Britain as well.

Third, we need to combine reform with defence of the foundations of our liberties. I want to give two examples.

The first concerns the need to explain and defend the role of the courts – above all the independence of the judiciary. These are not “enemies of the people” mounting a “constitutional coup”. They are actually the defenders of the rights of the people.

One feature of the last few months is that for the first time since its creation, the Supreme Court has entered the national consciousness. The televising of the prorogation case was all to the good. And apparently 4 million people watched some or all of the proceedings. The key is the independence from politics, which the 2005 creation of the Supreme Court by Charlie Falconer worked so assiduously and successfully to achieve.

One of the Supreme Court justices, Lord Hodge, speaking in November 2018, made the key point: “Judicial decisions which have political consequences are not the same as political decisions”.

It would be retrograde in the extreme to subject judicial appointments to political judgement. But we need to do more than fend off the clammy hands of politics. Lord Hodge has set out a checklist of ten pillars that support independence of the judiciary – including but not limited to an independent appointments process. He lists security of tenure, and thoroughgoing commitment of judges to extend political and public understanding. They all make sense.

And speaking for myself, I think the Brexit saga enormously strengthens the case for Britain to make a serious, multi-year attempt to agree the ground rules of politics through a written constitution. Such a constitution would not end the argument about the balance between politicians and the judiciary. But it could force national engagement with the foundations of our freedoms, and the institutions that defend them.

It would do one other thing: it would end once and for all the multiple opportunities for abuse associated with the Royal Prerogative. I am sure that many of you in this room were disturbed by the questions raised by the government’s decision to prorogue parliament. One unseemly part of that process concerned the role of Her Majesty The Queen. There should never have been a question of the Queen being asked to sign an illegal request from government. A written constitution would formalize the removal of the Monarch from politics in a healthy way.

We also, and this is my last point, which deserves a whole lecture and more, need to fight the war on facts.

That means more than calling out and pushing back against the bullying, intimidation and demonisation of journalists, especially women journalists, as well as MPs, which is a real and distressing feature of political discourse. The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg is doing her job. She reports the news, and the attempts to shape the news, and tries to help us understand what is happening underneath the bonnet of the car. We should all be protesting the attacks on her and other journalists as much as we deplore the attacks on MPs.

We also need to defend rules on balance that are a feature of broadcasting in the UK. And that cannot be confined to the traditional broadcasters.

There is now a healthy debate about whether and how social media companies should be classified as publishers and therefore subject to laws of libel. We also need to address their role as broadcasters.

This debate has recently exploded into public view in the US. The Trump campaign put together a campaign advert attacking the Biden family riddled with lies. CNN refused to screen it on the grounds of its “demonstrably false” claims. But in stepped Facebook to take the ad.

You’re not allowed to lie in advertising for medicine or food. Why should you be allowed to lie in promoting your politics?

Yet Facebook’s fact-checking rules explicitly exclude political ads. They justify the decision to broadcast lies on the grounds of free speech and fair debate. Mark Zuckerberg said last week he was defending the liberties that allowed Martin Luther King to lead the civil rights movement. The King family replied that it was hateful speech that generated the forces that eventually killed their father.

As it happens studies show that few of the Facebook feeds receiving the Biden ad were getting any counterweight. So, the idea that we can rely on democratic debate to root out truth from falsehood, good ideas from bad ones, is not convincing.

I think there are two objective tests. Is the material demonstrably false? And is the originator a legitimate organisation or real person?

That puts me with the writer Anne Applebaum. She writes: “The question now is to find the equivalent of licensing and public broadcasting in the world of social media: to find the regulatory or social or legal measures that will make this technology work for us…We can for example regulate internet advertising, just as we regulate broadcast advertising, insisting that people know when and why they are being shown political ads…We can curb the anonymity of the internet because we have a right to know whether we are interacting with real people or bots.”

The recent European Court of Justice ruling on defamatory content – and equivalent material – and the need to take it down shows that this debate is coming to Europe. It will either come to the courts or to politics or to both. And it is best that it comes to politics first.

Fake news is only going to get worse with the rise of “deep fakes”. I don’t know if any of you have seen the video that purported to show House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi giving an incendiary speech. It was completely compelling but completely fake.

The best response I have seen in terms of treating the symptoms comes from Finland. There mis-information (mistakes) is distinguished from dis-information (hoaxes) and mal-information (gossip). And Finland has taken more seriously than any other country the need to arm citizens with the tools to beat back fake news.

Their slogan is interesting: “the fight against fake news starts in the kindergarten”. They train teachers and educate students to take seriously the difference between truth and lies, and between facts and opinions. They focus on “lateral learning” and critical thinking – interrogating information instead of simply consuming it, verifying information before sharing it, acknowledging implicit prejudices we all carry, and rejecting rank and popularity as proxies for reliability.

And the result is that across multiple studies, Finnish students consistently beat out American students in their ability to identify the reliability and veracity of news articles and social media posts. The Finns also score 25% higher than the Brits on the Media Literacy Index, putting them in first place in Europe by a wide margin.

We need to stop being scared of politicising education and start being worried about generations unable to play the role of informed citizens.

There’s one big snag in the Finnish approach. Older internet users (50+ or 65+ depending on the study) are significantly worse at spotting fake news and are significantly more likely to share fake news than younger internet users. Facebook users over 65 years old shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news sites as younger users. Age, not politics, is the biggest predictor of who shares fake news. Which is to say that educating future generations won’t fix our problem – we need to get parents and grandparents into these fake news classes too.

Which just goes to show that on their own, none of these changes are the silver bullet. But together they would constitute a determined effort at refounding and renewing our democracy for future generations.

 

Conclusion

So: no Mr Putin, the liberal idea is not obsolete. It is more necessary than ever. But it will not survive unless it is defended.

I was taught at university that civil rights of the 18th century were buttressed by political rights in the 19th century and that the 20th century was the century of social rights. It was the Whig Theory of History, marked by ineluctable progress.

If only that story were true, and if only there was one direction to history. Autocracies do become democracies, but it is foolish to ignore the scope for democratic backsliding. Just ask the people of Hungary. And to avoid backsliding we need to strengthen our democratic institutions.

We have strong guardrails against the abuse of power. But they are now challenged in a way that has not been the case before. And the evidence from the US and elsewhere is that when they are not defended, they are eroded.

The Brexit crisis is about far more than Brexit. On this the Brexiteers are right. It is about our identity, our place in the world, and our democracy.

Brexit is not done. Nor is the damage it is going to do. And so, we need to seize every opportunity to limit its baleful influence on institutions bequeathed to us by generations of struggle.

Martin Gilbert did not just document these struggles. He believed in them, and so should we.

 

Ends